It felt empty when the heart went at first but it is alright now

Love lost

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 31.10.2014

It felt empty when the heart went at first but it is alright now is unlike any other production currently showing in Luxembourg. First of all, there is the location, namely the Hamilius underground passageway.

7:50 at night. On one side, the queue of theatregoers waiting rather self-consciously around the ticket desk. On the other, two groups of homeless people: five Roma migrants are eating apples quietly in a corner, while a few feet away a larger and much louder group of local homeless men are swigging beer from bottles… It is miles away from the chandeliers of the Grand Théâtre or the artiness of the Théâtre National. And then you are invited to look through a dirty window behind which a young woman is putting on make-up for her next punter, before you follow a singer and guitarist into the theatre space itself, which is a former Chinese shop.

This is Maskénada’s first English-language production. Rafael Kohn directs the 2009 play which was written by Lucy Kirkwood, one of the most celebrated voices in contemporary British theatre. Larisa Faber appears as Dijana, an Eastern European in her early twenties who leaves poverty and boredom behind in order to start a new life in London. With the help of her cousin Goran, she thinks. But then she meets Babac, one of Goran’s friends and falls head over heels in love. He woos her, gets her pregnant and tricks her into prostitution. All the choices she hoped to be given are taken away in one fell swoop, and she discovers too late that relying on the kindness of strangers is never a safe option.

What sounds like an awfully depressing tale of exploitation and sex-trafficking becomes, in fact, an engrossing portrait of one woman’s journey. Kirkwood’s snappy writing provides lots of funny moments, too. Again and again, advertising slogans take centre-stage as Dijana holds on to the promises of our consumer society. A George Foreman grilling machine? Another Magnum ice-cream? L’Oréal shampoo and conditioner – she feels that she can have it all now because she’s worth it!

Larisa Faber’s stunning performance pulses with energy. Even when Dijana realises that Babac has trapped her, she refuses to give in and falls back on various self-deceiving coping mechanisms. The warm, intimate conversations she has with her absent daughter and her dream-like escapes alternate with the comments she makes about the men who pay her for sex. Ironically, she reverses roles so that she herself and we, the audience, become voyeurs of figures we never actually meet.

Scenes dart back and forth between past and present, between real life and fantasy. At the heart of the plot is the tense encounter between Dijana and Gloria (an excellent Jacqueline Acheampong), the West African woman she ends up sharing a cell with at a detention centre. Once more, tender moments alternate with anger and mutual diffidence. Gloria’s fears and abrupt playfulness might be puzzling at first, but you sense that her strength and determination will get her through somehow.

Songs and sounds fit beautifully into the production, thanks to Serge Tonnar’s expertise, while numerous simple but subtle details add to the enjoyment of the evening: versatile use is made of a glass counter, the symbolism of different situations is lightly worn, and there are engaging moments of audience participation as Dijana tries to negotiate gaps and uncertainties. Poetic, moving and uncompromising, Kirkwood’s unique blend of dry humour and existential despair raises serious questions about the dark undercurrents of the world we live in.

It felt empty… may not be for the faint-hearted, but it is a big-issue play that is bound to impress and disturb. A show not to be missed!

It felt empty..., Hamilius underground passageway, at 8 p.m. on October 31, November 1, 5, 6 & 7, at 5 p.m. on November 9; www.maskenada.lu.
Janine Goedert
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